The always on the go BIGDoer.com crew are in the tiny burg of Marengo Saskatchewan to document the Providence Grain facility located there. Join us for a tour of this working grain elevator. It’s a bit different and is not one of the those high-throughput concrete super terminals common today, even if it sort of approaches them in capacity. Instead it’s a mix of old and new technologies, vintage wood grain elevators and storage annexes, modern metal storage bins, state of the art processing plant, computer controls, all working together in an efficient and productive way.
It may look a little strange, cobbled together, piecemeal, but functions well. And that’s where it counts.
The Marengo plant processes cereal grains of all types, plus peas and lentils. In function, it’s all fairly simple even if the machinery required to do is not. Trucks have their load sampled and if okay dump their contents into a vast conveyor, auger and lifting system network. The product may get routed to a specific bin for storage, or may alternately pass through a cleaning plant prior to that.
Later the grain is loaded into rail cars for delivery to customers on the continent or to export terminals. In terms of product moved, it’s on a big scale. Not quite the level of those concrete leviathans spoken of earlier, but way more than the typical rural grain elevator of not all that long ago, which at best filled a hand full of cars at a time.
At the centre of the Marengo Plant is some wood structures dating back some thirty to fifty years (and possibly more). The exact lineage of each part has sort of been lost to time but we have found a few scattered and incomplete bits of data here and there. The core elevator, it’s believed, dates from the mid-1960s and replaced an earlier much older structure on the same plot. One of the three annexes seen, it’s said, dates from the early 1980s. The other two, well, no one is completely sure. They likely date from at least the post 1940s given their appearance. By the way, annexes, usually added sometime after an elevator was built, are simply separate storage buildings tied into a main structure and used to increase capacity.
The original owners of the complex was United Grain Growers. The firm was a big wheel in the Canadian Grain Industry and had elevators all over the prairies. Merged with a rival network in the early 2000s they divested themselves of this facility around that time.
Shortly after a firm called Meridian Grain, in partnership with Paterson Grain (a long time albeit smaller player), took over. For the last four years or so the plant has been run by Providence Grain Solutions, a producer owned co-op. This firm is fairly new on the scene but is up and coming and rapidly expanding its operations. They have a good number of grain handling facilities across the prairies.
It was during the Meridian/Providence Grain period that all those metal storage bins were added increasing the plant’s capacity several fold. They are crazy-huge, the tallest things around, and really dwarf the original wood complex. Views from the top are incredibly far reaching! No matter the size or age of each piece, they whole complex operates as one cohesive unit. I was expecting some sort of Red Green duct-taped together undependable monstrosity but instead saw a well oiled machine that worked smoothly.
Depending on the time of year, a good half dozen men are employed at the complex. Hours can be long during harvest season with a steady stream of of trucks coming and going and trains visiting more frequently than during the rest of the year. On our visit, things were pretty quiet overall. A train was due, then got bumped to another day.
In the past there was several other elevators in Marengo, some dating back to the 1910s. Notable firms represented include Saskatchewan Wheat Pool, Searle Grain and Federal Grain along with some smaller firms. It’s possible one or two of the annexes on the current structure may have been salvaged off those competing elevators on their closure. The last of these “other” elevators were gone by the early 1980s.
The railway line seen belongs to Canadian National Railways. It was built by predecessor Canadian Northern Railways in the early 1910s. It used to connect Calgary with Saskatoon and was a fairly busy stretch of track, but today has been cut back to a point just west of Marengo. The main commodity hauled along the line, as it’s always been, is grain.
Trains travel the line several times a week minimum, often in an unpredictable manner. The Marengo Elevator typically loads something around fifty cars at a time. They were waiting on some during our visit, which were rather overdue in arriving (not a strange occurrence in talking with many elevator operators). As a result of the late train some bins were full to overflowing and space was becoming a premium, for some commodities anyway.
We had hoped we’d capture the loading of the train and planned this visit around it’s arrival. Silly us thinking it would be on time!
Cars are moved about on the three loading tracks by either a road/rail “Shuttlewagon” or a tractor equipped with a rail coupler. They might look too small for the task but can move cars with ease.
The car loading station is equipment with an fall-arresting device, in simple terms a cable strung between steel girders (those yellow things in the pictures at trackside) that workers tie into. It keeps them from hitting the ground should they trip while moving on the top of a car. It takes a good many minutes to fill a grain hopper, then the cut is moved so a new empty one can take its place. In no time, they’ve got a train load.
The town of Marengo is located in the far-east central part of the province and was founded just over a century ago (as we always say) with the coming of the railway. It’s home today to a few dozen people, give or take, including one or two fellows who work at the elevator seen here. In times past, during the great settlement boom of long ago, it was of course far more populated and much busier. One of the only other businesses in town, beside the elevator, is the hotel/pub.
We’ve visited this same grain elevator before, about a year ago. At the time we called it a something akin to a mutant given its unconventional appearance (see: Marengo’s crazy Frankenvator). Knowing what we know today and seeing how it works so well, I think that was perhaps a touch harsh. It’s not the monster we thought it was.
If you wish more information on what you’ve seen here, by all means contact us!
Date: July, 2016.
Location: Marengo, SK.
Article references and thanks: Providence Grain, The helpful crew at Marengo, Rick Green, United Grain Growers, University of Manitoba.
The elevator is on private property and not open to visitors but can be viewed from public roads nearby.